A lawmaker and businesswoman was arrested late Wednesday in Hanoi for allegedly swindling would-be homebuyers out of around VND377 billion (US$17.6 million) in an unlicensed property project that never materialized.
Police from the Ministry of Public Security on Wednesday evening combed the house of Chau Thi Thu Nga on Hong Mai Street in downtown Hanoi and seized stacks of documents they said are related to the case. Nga, 49, is also chairwoman and general director of the Land and Housing Construction and Investment JSC (Housing Group).
The search went on until 11 pm. Nga could face charges of "abusing public trust to appropriate property", according to the police.
In 2014, media reports highlighted many grievances of prospective homebuyers who deposited large sums of money to a housing project Nga's firm and the Hanoi Import, Export and Construction Investment and Development Company jointly invested in Cau Dien District.
At least 80 disgruntled homebuyers said they paid the deposits between 2009 and 2010 only to see that work on the project has never got started since. It was scheduled to finish by the end of this year but the project site has remained just a fallow piece of land.
But Nga went on collecting the money which has amounted to around VND377 billion ($17.6 million), the police said. She has never paid anyone back, they said.
Acting on the complaints, police arrested Nguyen Van Tuan, former chairman and director of the Hanoi Import, Export and Construction Investment and Development Company in October 2013. In March 2014, the Hanoi municipal administration asked the police to launch a criminal probe into the project only to find out that it was not licensed.
Nga has not been dismissed as a legislator yet.
In Vietnam, lawmakers are immune from prosecution and if they are not stripped of such criminal shield, the house speaker has to sign off on their arrest before it takes place. Nguyen Sinh Hung, chairman of the National Assembly, did so Wednesday. Nga was also suspended from the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, on the same day.
The house has some 500 lawmakers, ninety percent of whom are Communist Party members.
Chau Thi Thu Nga speaking at a parliamentary session. Photo: Ngoc Thang
Nga also holds membership to several social organizations, including the Vietnam National Real Estate Association, the Central Housing and Real Estate Policy Committee, and the Hanoi Organization for the Handicapped and Orphans.
She was mostly absent during the most recent National Assembly session that took place between October 20 and November 28 last year on health grounds.
Further investigations would be underway, police said.
In 2012, the National Assembly dismissed Dang Thi Hoang Yen, one of the country's richest women, for an untruthful biography related to her marriage to a fugitive overseas Vietnamese businessman wanted by Vietnamese police on swindling charges.
Arrests of serving lawmakers are rare in Vietnam. The two most recent arrests took place back to 2006 and 2005.
In 2006, Mac Kim Ton, director of the the education department in the northern province of Thai Binh, was arrested for abuse of power. He later got seven years in jail in 2007.
In 2005, Le Minh Hoang, former director of the Ho Chi Minh City Electricity Company, was charged with wrongdoings in the import of electronic electricity meters. He received a four-year sentence in 2009.